July 21, 2020 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation expresses concern regarding banning of popular social media applications TikTok and Bigo Live
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) banned the popular social media application Bigo Live and issued a final warning to TikTok via press release on July 20, 2020, purportedly acting on a ‘number of complaints’ against the alleged ‘immoral, obscene and vulgar content’ on these applications. Additional reasons for the ban and warning included ‘their extremely negative effects on society in general and youth in particular.’ As an organisation working in the field of digital rights and freedoms for nearly a decade, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) sees this as a blatant violation of the Constitutional right to freedom of expression online and urges the PTA to reconsider its approach for the safety of minors. These measures and warnings call for a fundamental reflection on the laws of censorship in place in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a long history of bans on social media platforms. In 2010, the Lahore High Court directed the government to block access to Facebook; a ban that lasted for a few days. Similarly, YouTube was blocked in Pakistan for three years. The Islamabad High Court issued orders in 2018 directing the PTA to swiftly deal with illegal content online, threatening otherwise that the courts would be compelled to block social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Last year the PTA reported to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecom that a total of 900,000 URLs have been blocked in the country. More recently, the PTA, acting upon directions of the Lahore High Court, ‘temporarily banned’ the popular mobile-based game PUBG. Earlier this month, a petition was filed at the Lahore High Court calling for a ban on TikTok.
The internet is a medium for expression, ranging from political to artistic content, and access to information that includes vital health information, news and entertainment. Applications such as TikTok and Bigo Live are video-based platforms used by a diverse set of users for expressing their right to speech and accessing content, both rights guaranteed under Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan. Any curtailment of these rights needs to be proportionate in nature, necessary to the specific harm being caused and established by law. Blanket bans on social media platforms are neither proportionate, necessary to the harm stated in by the PTA nor justified by law.
Firstly, the criteria of ‘obscenity’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘immorality’ used by the PTA is extremely vague and no objective legal standard has been employed by the Authority to take its decision. This was also reflected in the petition against TikTok submitted before the Lahore High Court that contended that users on the app are “spreading nudity and pornography for the sake of fame and rating”. It is not lost on us that the criteria of obscenity is often articulated in gendered terms and was the same justification used by petitions calling for a ban on the Aurat March earlier this year. Platforms such as TikTok and Bigo provide young people space to express themselves freely, in ways that they cannot in other spaces of society. It is also no coincidence that the user base of TikTok and Bigo is extremely diverse, consisting of users from different classes and genders. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, apps such as TikTok are not text-heavy and thus lend themselves to a more diverse userbase as lack of literacy is no longer a barrier. Justifications based on ‘vulgarity’ and ‘obscenity’ are often stand-ins for society’s discomfort with expression that deviates from gendered norms and carries classist assumptions of what constitutes ‘respectable’, ‘acceptable’ content.
The popularity of TikTok and Bigo among Pakistanis should be celebrated, it provides an avenue for artistic expression, a platform for expression and space for connection with one another. The content on these applications, no matter how frivolous or ‘silly’ is protected speech, and is important for any society that values culture. The courts, government or the PTA are no one to judge whether it is valuable or beneficial for society or not. Additionally, these platforms provided content creators with an opportunity to earn revenue from their live streams and creative videos. Many Pakistanis are among the top professional online gamers, using platforms such as PUBG, and there is a burgeoning local e-sports culture. In a post-Covid19 economy, as prospects for employment for the youth are rapidly shrinking, taking away these economic opportunities could devastate the livelihoods of many.
While the PTA does not allude to it, many have cited the extremely horrific incident of gang rape in Lahore as further justification for the ban. The victim/survivor was a user of TikTok who allegedly met her rapist over the app and agreed to meet in person to record a video, which is when the incident took place. Violence against women and rape is a systemic issue that predates any social media application and will, unfortunately, continue even if the internet was banned in Pakistan. This rhetoric of ‘protecting women’ is part of an old playbook, women’s safety issues are hijacked by voices to enact paternalistic, heavy-handed measures which do very little to tackle systemic violence against gendered bodies or dismantle patriarchal structures, rather seek to restrict freedoms. As a digital and women’s rights organisation, we are witness to the justifications used by the government to pass draconian legislation such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016 which has done little to protect women and gendered minorities in online spaces. The desire to police women’s bodies and expression is again apparent when the criteria of obscenity and vulgarity are invoked to limit internet freedoms.
Secondly, it is disingenuous to argue that these platforms are being used to negatively influence the youth as even a cursory look at the content on TikTok and Bigo reveals that this is patently not the case. The community guidelines of these platforms prohibit pornography and harmful content for minors. Any content violating these policies is either auto-deleted by the algorithm or can be reported in-app. When a proportionate remedy exists for the alleged harm caused, there is no point in banning entire applications which contain diverse content. If any content on the application is deemed to contain hate speech or cause harm to minors, then it should be reported as a piece of individual content to either the social media company for removal or taken up with the relevant law enforcement agencies. Individual pieces of content cannot be used to justify the banning of an entire platform; a move that would be grossly disproportionate.
Additionally, social media companies cannot be held liable for individual pieces of content on their platforms. While each company should be required to have mechanisms for removal and monitoring of harmful content in place, the principle of intermediary liability states that these platforms cannot be expected to be held liable for every content that is posted. Users are well within their rights to demand that social media companies have adequate mechanisms and systems in place that protect the most vulnerable groups using their platform, however, platforms cannot be expected to guarantee that no harmful content will ever be posted. As long as there are systems in place to detect, report and remove such content when it does appear the companies are acting within the scope of their limited liability.
Thirdly, the justification of these bans to ‘protect’ children and the youth is akin to banning highways to prevent road accidents. The mental health, wellbeing and safety of children and young adults should be a concern for us all, however, banning applications is a paternalistic solution to a problem whose root causes are beyond individual applications or even the internet. Mental health is an epidemic worldwide and Pakistan, in particular, lacks the infrastructure to provide quality mental healthcare to its citizens, including the youth. In a country with a massive youth bulge, it is concerning that avenues for expression and entertainment, which are vital parts of intellectual and emotional growth, are extremely limited. As per a study by UNDP in 2018, it was reported that a majority of Pakistani youth do not have access to recreational facilities or events: 78.6% do not have access to parks; 97.2% lack access to live music; 93.9% lack access to sporting events; 97% can’t access cinemas and 93% are denied access to sports facilities. By banning applications primarily used by the youth, the state will be denying them a platform for self-expression in a society that already lacks alternatives.
Fourthly, individual pieces of content can be reported to the PTA under section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). If individual accounts or content violates the criteria for removal, the PTA has the power to “remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information”. This needs to be done through an order passed by the PTA and such an order needs to be communicated to the aggrieved party who has the right under section 37(4) to ask for a review of the order for blocking or removal. Furthermore, an appeal to the relevant high court against the decision of the PTA also lies under section 37(5). As a digital rights organisation, we believe that these powers are already too broad and need to be reviewed; but it is concerning that in banning entire platforms the PTA is exceeding even these excessive powers in an arbitrary manner.
This month TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, was banned by the Modi-led government in India as a result of its strained relations with China. Statements by the US government have expressed similar possible plans. While there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the content regulation and privacy policies of the application, these decisions do not seem to be driven out of genuine concern for users’ rights rather are part of a larger geostrategic move to isolate China. As a country that has repeatedly raised alarm regarding the fascist tendencies of the Modi government, it is surprising that the government in Pakistan is taking a similar heavy-handed approach to internet censorship.
We demand an overhaul of the internet regulation regime in place as it is extremely arbitrary and violates the principles of freedom of expression and access to information, enshrined in not only international conventions that Pakistan has ratified but also guaranteed under its own Constitution. These individual cases point towards a wider trend of shrinking online freedoms. As concerned citizens, we demand:
- Immediately lift bans on PUBG and Bigo Live, and reconsider warnings issued to TikTok;
- Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 be repealed;
- The government move towards a model of self-regulation that is compliant with international human rights standards;
- Transparency from the PTA regarding the content that is reported to the Authority and publicly available orders which delineate the reasons for removing/blocking specific content;
- A comprehensive and welfare-based plan for the protection of children and adolescents which includes investment in digital literacy, access to mental health counselling and programs for the performing arts; and
- Immediate de-notification of the Citizen's Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules and abandonment of the approach taken in the Rules as a viable mechanism for regulating the internet.
Read about the impact of the TikTok ban in India here: https://www.npr.org/2020/07/16/890382893/tiktok-changed-my-life-india-s-ban-on-chinese-app-leaves-video-makers-stunned
Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Statement